So opens a 1961 poem by British ornithologist, Beryl Patricia Hall.
Thankfully, our appreciation of pipits has matured a little since then and, in Beijing, we have 10 species on the official list: Blyth’s, Buff-bellied, Meadow, Olive-backed, Pechora, Red-throated, Richard’s, Rosy, Tree and Water. Rosy and Richard’s are scarce breeders and passage migrants; Blyth’s, Buff-bellied, Olive-backed, Pechora and Red-throated are all passage birds; Water Pipit is a winter visitor; and Meadow (three records) and Tree Pipit (one record, photographed in the UK Ambassador’s garden in May 2013!) are vagrants.
In mid-April the passage of pipits is in full swing and, last weekend, I encountered large flocks of Buff-bellied Pipits (ssp japonicus) at Miyun Reservoir. With a few late Water Pipits (ssp blakistoni) mixed in, it was an ideal opportunity to get to grips with this subtle and underrated species.
Here are some photos that show typical japonicusBuff-bellied Pipits in breeding plumage.
And here are a few Water Pipits (ssp blakistoni), the most likely confusion species.
Of course, another good indicator of ID is call. The calls of Water and Buff-bellied Pipits are similar but with practice can be differentiated. To my ears Buff-bellied sounds slightly down-slurred compared with Water Pipit’s slightly up-slurred call note. You can hear the calls of Buff-bellied Pipit here and Water Pipit here. What do YOU think?
The White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) is a familiar bird across Eurasia. Most authorities recognise 9 subspecies from the dark and distinctive Motacilla alba yarrelli in the western part of its range in the UK, to Motacilla alba lugens in Japan in the east.
Growing up on the east coast of the UK, I was familiar with the yarrelli ssp, a common breeder, and was excited to see a few of the continental subspecies M.a.alba in early Spring, often associating with flocks of Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava).
On arrival in Beijing I soon became familiar with the local breeder known as “Amur Wagtail”, ssp leucopsis, and saw ssp ocularis and ssp baicalensis on migration in spring and autumn.
In April 2012 I was lucky enough to find a “Masked Wagtail” (ssp personata) at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, the first record of this subspecies in Beijing. And in winter 2013/2014 I saw my first “Black-backed Wagtail” (ssp lugens), a subspecies that breeds in Japan and is an annual, but scarce, winter visitor to the capital.
Just last week, Shi Jin found a stunning, and Beijing’s second, “Masked Wagtail” (ssp personata) along the Wenyu River amongst a flock of 200+ White Wagtails. This find came a day after strong northwesterly winds that brought Beijing’s first dust storm of the Spring. It is probably no coincidence that, on Sunday, young local birder Luo Qingqing found the first record of eastern alba for the capital. In fact it seems that this latter sighting is not just a first for Beijing but for all of eastern China! An incredible record.
‘Eastern’ alba was formerly known as ssp dukhunensis but was subsumed into alba by Per Alström and Krister Mild in their excellent and groundbreaking “Pipits and Wagtails” book (2003). This treatment has been almost universally accepted and so dukhunensis no longer exists as a subspecies.
‘Eastern’ alba has been recorded in west China, in Xinjiang (where it is locally common) and is a regular but scarce migrant in Qinghai. It has also occurred in Ningxia and, possibly, Sichuan (Paul Holt, pers comm). Sunday’s sighting is the first that we are aware of in all of east China.
Having already recorded lugens, leucopsis, ocularis and baicalensis, the sightings of personata and now alba bring the total number of subspecies seen in Beijing so far this year to 6! Is there anywhere in the world that can beat that?
STOP PRESS: On Friday 3 April Shi Jin found a second, and Beijing’s third, personata along the Wenyu River. And, incredibly, on 6 April, local bird photographer Cheng Dong shot this image of Beijing’s 2nd alba White Wagtail at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake!
(1) L. Shyamal, based on; Nakamura, Kazue (1985). “Historical change of the geographical distribution of two closely related species of the genus Motacilla in the Japanese Archipelago: a preliminary note”. Bulletin of the Kanagawa prefecture Museum of Natural Science No.16.
It was as recently as 1970 that RELICT GULL (Larus relictus, 遗鸥) was confirmed as a valid species. Before that it was thought to be either an eastern race of Mediterranean Gull (Ichthyaetus melanocephalus) or a hybrid between Brown-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) and Pallas’s Gull (Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus)! Since its rather late acceptance into the global ornithological fold much has been discovered about this beautiful gull. Breeding sites have been found in China, Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia and it appears that, although a few spend the winter in Korea, almost the entire world population winters on the northeast China coast, around the Bohai Bay.
And just before their spring migration, gatherings on the coast of birds in stunning breeding plumage, are simply spectacular.
Last week, local Tianjin birder Mo Xunqian (“Nemo”) and friend Zhu Bingrun (“Drew”) counted 10,652 Relict Gulls from 3 sites around Hangu, Tianjin. This is a world record count and was simply too much to resist. So, together with Paul Holt and members of Beijing Birdwatching Society, including President Fu Jianping, I headed to the coast to try to catch a glimpse of these awesome birds before they left for the breeding grounds.
With the help of Nemo and local bird photographer and conservationist Mr Wang Jianmin, we arrived on site at the perfect time – just as the tide was beginning to fall. And we were greeted with a sea of Relict Gulls, the adults resplendent in their hooded breeding plumage and with hormones raging. Many were engaging in courtship display, throwing back their heads and holding open their wings as they called loudly. Superb!
After a few minutes of simply admiring this breathtaking spectacle, Paul was quick to get to work counting the flock. His tally was an outstanding 10,405, a record for a single site. I focused on capturing some video footage and, as the wind began to increase, making the conditions difficult for video, I began to scan the flock, observing their behaviour and enjoying the birds.
It wasn’t long before I found a leg-flagged adult sporting an orange flag on its right tibia and then, incredibly, another with an orange flag engraved with the number “1”.
We enjoyed several hours with these birds until, as the tide receded, the birds began to move out onto the mud to feed. Every few minutes, as more mud became exposed, the whole flock would rise into the air, wheeling around before settling a few metres closer to the retreating sea. It was an awesome sight. All against the unlikely backdrop of an aircraft carrier, moored to the north…
As the birds moved away we made our way back to the car, still buzzing from witnessing one of the most impressive birding sights during my time in China.
Mr Wang took us to a local restaurant for lunch where we reflected on the status of Relict Gull. It was then that a hint of sadness hit us. As impressive as this spectacle was, the fact that so many are concentrated in one spot is not a good sign. It’s a symptom of shrinking habitat. And the concentration into such a small area makes the population extremely vulnerable to shocks.. A serious oil spill, for example, could devastate these birds.
Anyone familiar with east Asia won’t be surprised that the cause of the shrinking habitat is land reclamation. Mr Wang told us that, so far, around 80% of Tianjin’s tidal mudflats have been reclaimed, with just over 30km of coastal mudflat remaining of an original 140+km. And then the news got worse; the site where we had just recorded a world record count of this special gull was due to be reclaimed and turned into housing. My heart sank.
Much has been made of the breathtaking pace of ‘development’ along China’s east coast, in particular in the context of Spoon-billed Sandpiper. And whilst the disappearance of tidal mudflats will undoubtedly affect many shorebird species, the Relict Gull is perhaps the most vulnerable species of all. With almost the entire global population dependent on the tidal mudflats of the Bohai Bay, this bird is being squeezed into ever-decreasing pockets of viable habitat. At the present rate of land reclamation it is questionable for how long the remaining areas of tidal mudflats will be able to sustain the wintering population. And with human disturbance, unsustainable water use and climate change, there are significant threats to the breeding grounds, too. The Relict Gull fully deserves its “Vulnerable” status.
Development is clearly necessary for the government to continue to bring millions of Chinese out of poverty. That includes expanding ports, improving infrastructure and building homes and businesses. The key question is whether or not this development can be more sensitive to the natural world. Unfortunately, it is still the case that ecosystems and biodiversity have zero value in our economic model. That’s not unique to China, it’s a global phenomenon. To protect sites and species often requires monumental efforts from passionate individuals and groups. It should be the default.
Mr Wang has been championing the need to protect the remaining tidal mudflats around Tianjin. He has exhibited his excellent photographs to raise awareness among the local community and, importantly, he has met with local government officials to highlight the global importance of this habitat. He is committed to doing everything he can to help Relict Gull, a species that is clearly very close to his heart. With the vast majority of the population breeding in China and wintering along the Bohai Bay, Relict Gull is a Chinese treasure, just like the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven or the Terracotta Warriors. I hope that, one day, it will be given the same protection.
Big thanks to Nemo, Zhu Bingrun, Wang Jianmin, Paul Holt, Wang Qingyu, Fu Jianping and the Beijing Birdwatching Society for ensuring our trip to see Relict Gulls was successful, for the use of photographs and for their fun company in Tianjin.
When I first arrived in Beijing it took me almost two years to find my first Japanese Reed Bunting (Emberiza yessoensis, 红颈苇鹀). It is a scarce, probably overlooked, winter visitor to the capital and it can be tricky to find in its favoured habitat of weedy scrub, usually close to water. This habitat is also used in winter by the much more common, almost abundant, Pallas’s Reed Bunting (Emberiza pallasi, 苇鹀) and it’s this species that one must be careful to eliminate when looking for Japanese. As is the case with separating many similar species, call is a good indicator. Japanese Reed Bunting utters a thin “tseep”, contrasting with the Pallas’s Reed Bunting’s chirpy sparrow-like call. Japanese Reed Buntings tend to feed on the ground in long grass and are usually skittish. Often the first sight or sound is when one is accidentally disturbed. When flushed, they tend to fly quite a long way before diving into long grass. However, just occasionally, they sit up in the open, which is exactly what these two posers did last week during a walk with Steve Bale along the Wenyu He. Japanese Reed Buntings usually look ‘warmer’ in overall colouration than Pallas’s Reed Bunting. The yellowy look, combined with the black ear coverts, are good indicators of Japanese Reed. With orangey tones on the wing feathers, I think Japanese Reed Bunting is one of the most beautiful, if subtle, of the East Asian buntings and it’s always a delight to see.
In Beijing in winter we are blessed with good numbers of East Asian thrushes… In my experience NAUMANN’S (Turdus naumanni) is the most common, followed by RED-THROATED (Turdus ruficollis) and DUSKY (Turdus eunomus) with BLACK-THROATED (Turdus atrogularis) being the most scarce. It is not uncommon to encounter intergrades, and birds exhibiting features of both NAUMANN’S and DUSKY are frequently encountered (see images at the end of this post). It is much less common to find birds showing features of both Red-throated and Black-throated. However, that is exactly what I found on Sunday at Lingshan.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to capture many (any!) good quality photographs but the two I did manage (above) show the unusually-marked throat and upper breast. A ‘pure’ Red-throated should show reddish orange marks only on the throat and breast with no black. And Black-throated should show only black or grey markings here, lacking any reddish tones. This bird clearly shows a mixture, with black dominating the lower part of the throat-patch and red dominating the upper part and the neck surrounds. I have never seen a bird like this before but it seems reasonable to assume that this is an intergrade between RED-THROATED and BLACK-THROATED. Although Red x Black-throated Thrushes are rare in Beijing, they are fairly frequent in Central Asia – see here for some information from Kazakhstan.
Vagrant East Asian thrushes, especially first year birds, still cause some identification problems in Europe (e.g. the 2013 Dusky Thrush at Margate in the UK and the recent putative Red-throated Thrush in Finland). This is because we don’t know for sure the variability of ‘pure’ birds, complicated by the fact that we know they interbreed. If we are to improve our knowledge, studies must be made on the breeding grounds, away from areas of potential interbreeding, so that we can better understand natural variation of pure species and pin down the tell-tale signs of intergradation. Although birders in Beijing and East Asia have a lot of experience of these thrushes, because we see these birds on the wintering grounds, in some cases we cannot be certain whether or not we are looking at pure birds or intergrades.. This means we are not best-placed to provide anything other than opinions about what we *think* are signs of intergradation based on seeing hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of these beautiful thrushes.
That said, I think we can all agree that the Lingshan bird is an intergrade. And what a cracker it was!
Just for interest, here are a couple of apparent DUSKY x NAUMANN’S THRUSHES from Beijing.
When I arrived in Beijing I soon discovered a small, but amazingly passionate and dedicated, group of people working to conserve birds and their habitats in East Asia. The wonderful people at Birds Korea, an independent NGO headed by Nial Moores, is one such example.
In China, at least, much original habitat remains and the volume of birds I see on migration still eclipses anything I ever saw in Europe. However, the conservation challenges in this part of the world are substantial. With rapid economic growth, large populations, a lack of credible environmental legislation and enforcement, and relatively low environmental awareness among the general public, it is tough to ensure that policymakers give the environment the consideration it deserves. And even when lawmakers and governments do show a willingness to take into account environmental concerns, there is often a lack of credible data to make an evidence-based case to protect endangered species and their habitats.
That is why the Birds Korea Status of Birds 2014 is such an important publication. It not only documents the status of the “regularly occurring” species but examines the trends based on habitats and makes concrete recommendations to strengthen conservation of birds in Korea. It’s an impressive report and will not only serve to inform the Korean government but will also act as the standard-bearer for conservation organisations in the region. Robust data, interpreted intelligently with practical recommendations for policymakers, is essential to coherent and sustainable economic planning. And until we have a more complete global measure of wealth (rather than the outdated and not fit for purpose measure of GDP) that requires governments to take into account natural wealth in their national accounts and economic decision-making, it will be up to NGOs and volunteers to provide this information.
Well done Birds Korea!
To gain a sense of the report the key messages are listed below, and you can download the full report here.
By the end of April 2014, 535 bird species had been adequately documented in the ROK
365 of these species are considered “regularly occurring”, either historically or in the present century
87% of regularly occurring and all irregularly occurring species are migratory
Two of the 365 species are Globally Critically Endangered (with one of these presumed Globally Extinct), seven are Globally Endangered, and 19 are Globally Vulnerable
Five regularly occurring species were lost to the regular avifauna between 1910 and 1999
At least 103 species have declined substantially during the present century
Half of all regularly occurring species still have an unknown trend
On present knowledge, 126 species are identified as “Highest” and “High” Conservation Priorities
Some progress has been made in recent decades, especially in reforestation, afforestation and the reduction of hunting
However, habitat loss and degradation is the main driver of decline for many of the species in decline, including birds of Grassland-type and Open Habitat and most especially waterbirds
Three-quarters of the nation’s tidal-flats have been reclaimed and most natural freshwater wetlands have been degraded or lost
A third of all waterbird species are in decline, and more than a third still have an unknown trend (and might be declining)
Improved research in and especially conservation of Freshwater and Intertidal Wetland remains the most urgent priority
An improvement in knowledge by itself will not be enough: policies and laws need strengthening
“Life-changing”, “Eye-opening”, “Amazing” and “Inspirational” were some of the words used (or, rather, their Chinese equivalents!) by students and teachers to describe their trip to Yinggeling.
As trailed in the previous post, last week I spent 7 days at Yinggeling Nature Reserve, nestled in the mountains of central Hainan, a tropical island off the south coast of China, with 14 students and two teachers from Beijing’s 94th Middle School . The trip was organised by Luo Peng of Eco Action, a new Chinese company dedicated to raising awareness of sustainability and environmental issues in China, in particular with young people.
The aims were twofold: first, to introduce the students to a forest ecosystem so that they could understand the benefits provided by a forest and the importance of a sustainable relationship between nature and people; and second, to provide income to the village to support an agreement not to hunt wild animals or plant more rubber trees (their main source of income) and to help pay some of the villagers to act as “rangers” (to patrol the forests, remove illegal traps and snares and, if possible, apprehend any poachers).
I was invited to lead the birdwatching activities and, in partnership with officials from the Kadoorie Farm and nature reserve staff from the Yinggeling National Nature Reserve, we put together an itinerary that included conducting a biodiversity survey, birdwatching, night safaris to observe fish and amphibians, learning about local practices, including harvesting honey and basket-weaving, and helping the villagers to plant their rice crop.
The trip started with a flight to Haikou, a city on the northern coast of Hainan. After a short birding session around Haikou on the first day, where we met with staff from Kadoorie Farm, the local Mangrove Nature Reserve (and some visiting Beijing birders!), we met the students at the airport and set off for the 3-4 hours drive to Yinggeling Nature Reserve. Here we spent two nights learning about Yinggeling, its wildlife, hiking, birding and even playing football!
After familiarising ourselves with the local area, including a beautiful hike to a stunning waterfall, we prepared for what was to be the highlight of the trip – three days and two nights at Daoyin, a remote village deep inside the nature reserve.
Daoyin, with a population of 90 ethnic Li people, has no roads to link it with the outside world, no phone signal, no hot water (a revitalising dip in the river is the nearest thing to a shower) and, of course, no WiFi (hard for those of us addicted to smart phones!). It was only recently that the fitting of solar panels provided limited electricity (for lighting) for the first time.
Getting to Daoyin required a 3.5 hour drive from our base at the nature reserve, mostly along rough dirt tracks, followed by a stunning, but demanding, 5-6 hour hike along the river, crossing the river three times… it was a real adventure and wonderful to see the students pushing themselves and helping each other to reach the village.
On arrival we were met by the local villagers, including Mr Fu Guohua, the current village leader, and Mr Fu Jinhai, the former leader (the villagers have a system whereby the leadership is rotated). Although the villagers lived a very basic life with mud-huts and chickens and pigs wandering around, we were struck by just how happy everyone looked… the children were having a ball exploring the forest, climbing trees and playing badminton.. as the villagers busied themselves with their daily tasks – fishing, preparing food, washing clothes and building or repairing houses. Surrounded by bird, insect and frog song, with none of the noise and stresses of the city, life seemed idyllic.
At this point, feeling adventurous and slightly proud of myself for making it to this remote place, I asked Mr Fu if I was the first British person to visit the village… He thought for a moment and then said “no!” A scientist – an expert from Kadoorie Farm – had visited several years previously. My slight disappointment soon melted away when he told me that this British scientist was well-remembered for having given the then leader a gift of a wind-up head torch, something the leader cherished… and now almost everyone in the village owned one. I felt proud to be British and offered the leader my own gift – a Swiss Army Knife – which he looked at with some confusion before I showed him what it could do!
The villagers were fantastic hosts. Over the two full days that we spent in the village they helped us to arrange a host of activities for the students, including early morning bird walks, a survey of the “fish sanctuary”, an area where fishing is prohibited to ensure fish stocks remain healthy, the release back into the wild of a Hainan Partridge that had been found in an illegal trap several weeks before, a hike to collect footage from some of the camera traps that have been placed inside the forest (the rare and endemic Hainan Peacock Pheasant has been caught on film!), harvesting honey from the village hives, making baskets and cups from bamboo and helping the villagers to plant their rice crop.
On the second day a group of villagers returned from a 3-day expedition into the mountains to look for poachers and traps… After great work by Kadoorie and the local nature reserve staff, these villagers had agreed to become “rangers”, paid to sacrifice hunting and, instead, help to protect the forest’s wildlife. They told us that, with the rubber price very low this year and the forthcoming Chinese New Year (a traditional time to eat exotic food), some of the people in other local villages had been tempted to try to make money through hunting and selling of wild animals.. The head of the nature reserve told me that demand for exotic meat was such that a hunter could receive as much as Yuan 1,000 (GBP 100) for 1.5 kilos of wild animal meat.. With prices like that, it’s no wonder that some people are tempted to break the law… and it’s an indicator of just how important it is to tackle demand..
The rangers had found an injured Yellow-bellied Weasel in an illegal trap and, the day we returned to the nature reserve HQ, they found an endemic Hainan Flying Squirrel that had been shot. Hunting is clearly still an issue but the villagers say that it is much reduced, largely thanks to the hard work and of the nature reserve officials and Kadoorie Farm, together with the positive engagement of the local villagers.
On our second and last night, the local villagers not only provided us with a tasty meal of fish, vegetables and rice, but also put on an impromptu talent contest… one of the villagers was famed for his ability to “play” the leaf… and we were treated to renditions of some traditional Li songs before the nature reserve staff and village leaders together sang the “Yinggeling Song” (the soundtrack to the video at the end of this post).
After enjoying our time in the village, all too quickly we had to leave, and after hiking a different route back to the road, over the mountains instead of along the river, we met our 4wd vehicles and headed back to the nature reserve HQ.
Back at HQ, the students were divided into teams and were invited to make a presentation about what they had learned, their ideas about how to protect the forest and the livelihoods of the local people, and how their experience would affect them.
After receiving their certificates for volunteering in Daoyin we made our way back to Haikou where we enjoyed a delicious meal at the local seafood market before resting ahead of our early morning flight back to Beijing.
I felt privileged to be part of such a rewarding and meaningful trip. The students clearly gained a lot and it was easy to see that several were truly inspired by their experience. The head teacher told us that, when they had spoken about the village of Daoyin in the classroom, the students did not believe that such places existed… …and yet, here they were at the end of the trip, devising lots of positive ideas about how to support the villagers and to protect the forest. It was great to see. And, of course, it wasn’t just the students who benefitted. For each guest, a payment was made to the local village that will help to ensure they do not need to hunt wild animals to sustain a living and also providing the resources to make some improvements to the village…
My heartfelt thanks go to Luo Peng , of EcoAction, for devising the initiative, to Mr Fu Guohua and Fu Jinhai and all the villagers at Daoyin who made us feel so welcome, to the Yinggeling Nature Reserve staff, especially Mi Hongxu and Liao Gaofeng, and to the officials at Kadoorie Farm, in particular Li Fei, who accompanied us throughout. Finally, a big thank you to the students and teachers from Beijing’s 94th Middle School for engaging so positively and for making the trip so much fun.
EcoAction hopes to plan similar trips to Daoyin in the future, not only for schools but, potentially, for small parties of tourists, ideally families. If you are interested in a truly authentic Chinese experience that will benefit the local community as well as providing you with an unforgettable encounter, feel free to contact me..
I’ll finish the post with a short video that captures some of the activities during the trip.. all to the backdrop of the “Yinggeling Song”, as sung by the nature reserve staff and local villagers..!
PS I almost forgot the birds! In total, we saw 105 species, including 2 of the 3 endemic species, Hainan Leaf Warbler and Hainan Partridge. A full species list is available here.